Saturday, September 20, 2014

Impressions #14: Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga

My ATLUS binge has been progressing about as well as I expected. Since the games on my list are JRPGs, and I am now balancing a work and school schedule, I knew that playing through any one game would take some time. To not suspect that to be the case would be folly. Still, though it may have taken some doing, I have finally completed Digital Devil Saga. Released in 2005 for the PS2 in North America, Digital Devil Saga is much more of a traditional Shin Megami Tensei game than its Devil Summoner cousins. At the same time, it also sets itself apart in its own way.

One of the most unique aspects of the game is its story. Digital Devil Saga takes place in a post-apocalyptic hellscape known as The Junkyard. The player is handed the role of Serph, leader of the Embryon tribe, one of 6 large warring tribes in the junkyard. Devoid of emotions, the tribes fight one another in an attempt to kill the leaders of the other tribes. The last remaining tribe earns the right to ascend to the paradise of Nirvana. However, on one day, a bright light hits the bodies of every person in The Junkyard, branding them with special symbols. These symbols give the people human emotions and the ability to transform into demonic Atma Avatars, representing their inner selves. In exchange, they are given a compulsion to devour the flesh of other demons in order to strengthen their karma and gain additional powers. A mysterious girl appears at the same time, with the ability to suppress this innate hunger with her singing. With their world changed, Serph has to lead his tribe and attempt to reach Nirvana.
The setup is an incredibly intriguing one. The fact that the world is so incredibly different from our own, or any of the standard lists of typical RPG settings, can be off-putting at first. However, persistence through the game is rewarded with a very interesting character exploration. Since the characters are only just now starting to feel emotions, the player gets to see them grow and learn how and why they respond to certain stimuli. It is not something that many writers would dare to try, and fewer of which would get right. However, ATLUS does this job incredibly well.
Furthermore, there is an element of mystery to the story. Nobody knows who unleashed the light and why. The origins of the girl who can suppress the hunger are also unknown to the party. It is hinted that there are answers to these question, but the game does not outright state those answers. Presumably, this is because those answers will be made clear in Digital Devil Saga 2, the direct continuation of the story. Yes, the game is essentially a two-parter. As the first half of a two-part plot, the game does well enough to both be satisfying on its own and leave its sequel enough room to wrap up all of the loose ends. Although, I get the feeling that if I was not already aware that there was a direct sequel, I might be pretty peeved at the lack of a true denouement

Now, as far as combat goes, this game borrows a lot from other Shin Megami Tensei games, specifically Nocturne. Digital Devil Saga has adapted the Press Turn System from that game for its own use. Battles occur alternating between player and enemy turns. On the player's turn, they get one action for each ally character. Each character acts in a sequence determined by the player prior to the fight. In most circumstances, an action will consume an entire turn. However, if an attack manages to exploit an enemy weakness (or if a physical attacks becomes a critical hit), then only half of a turn will be expended. Should other half-turns be in play, then the half-turn will be taken from a full-turn instead. Alternatively, should an attack miss or get nullified by the foe's innate resistances, then the attack will expend two turns. A repelled or absorbed attacked will end the round entirely, as will running out of turns. A player can also strategically make the decision to pass the character's turn, only expending a half-turn, to give other teammates the chance to attack weaknesses. Enemies are just as beholden to these rules as players are during their phase, though they cannot pass turns.
This system is ultimately the crux of why the game can be either one of hardest or one of the easiest games out there. With the right skill-sets, parties can absolutely crush the opposition by mercilessly going after vulnerabilities and gaining many extra turns. However, an incorrect setup can quickly leave the party overwhelmed by wasted turns, leaving enemies the chance to capitalize on their misfortune. It is up to the player to make sure that they remain fully aware of the elemental properties of their enemies and adjust their setup accordingly, else they will not succeed. Particularly on bosses, it was not atypical for me to spend my first attempt just trying to figure out what attacks will/won't work on an enemy in order to adjust my build for the second attempt. Ultimately, this means that the early game can be brutal, simply due to a lack of skills. At the same time, the end game can be shockingly easy if the player has spent their time diversifying their party's abilities, given them a wide variety to select from.

Speaking of which, skill and character development is handled differently in Digital Devil Saga than they are in most Shin Megami Tensei games. In most SMT games, the player character must capture demons to add to their party. Those demons come with skills, strengths, and weaknesses, forming the basis of their setups. Though fusion, players have another way to customize their demons and further refine their party build.
This is not the case in Digital Devil Saga. Each character only has a single demon form, which will not change at all for the duration of the game. Unless the party is ambushed, they will transform into demons at the start of the fight and begin battle. Since no extra demons are obtained, skills are acquired in a different way. Instead, the players spend money (called “Macca”) in order to purchase Mantra at Karma Terminals (aka Save Points). With an unmastered Mantra, a party member will gain Atma Points towards the mastery of it. When enough Atma is acquired, the Mantra is mastered, new Mantra that required it as a pre-requisite are unlocked, and the skills the are governed by that Mantra are taught to the player character. All characters have access to the same mantra list, regardless of the statistical or elemental affinities. Therefore, each character can learn every skill in the game, given enough time and investment.
But gaining Atma just by fighting battles is a slow process, even with certain skills speeding it up. Having said that, there is a way to make it quicker. Certain skills, referred to as “Hunt” skills, exist in the game. If an enemy is defeated by a “Hunt” skill, then the character who delivered the attack will devour them, gaining much more Atma than they normally would. However, there is always a chance that the party member will suffer a stomachache, preventing them from gaining any Atma and giving them a chance to pass a turn. These “Hunt” skills are normally very impotent on their own. However, if any enemy has their weakness exploited, there is a chance that they will become “frightened”, which triples the damage of a Hunt attack. Should the attack also have an instant death chance, that chance rises to 100% on a frightened foe.
In order to stay ahead of enemies, it is important to constantly devour as many foes as possible in the game. The mechanics of these actions reinforce the characters constant need to eat in order to satiate their hunger, without burdening the player with any needless status ailments. Further, it fits right into the combat system by given the player additional reasons to play well and exploit weaknesses. It can even result in interesting scenarios where the player needs to choose between ending a battle swiftly or deliberately prolonging it in order to get a shot at a successful hunt. The chance to successfully hunt an enemy can even make some players look forward to the next battle, despite the needlessly high encounter rate. Overall, the hunting mechanic feeds well into the rest of the game.

Digital Devil Saga did a great job of reiterating on the core themes and mechanics of Shin Megami Tensei in what was, at the time, a new and interesting way. For this reason, it still holds up well at the time of writing, 9 years later. Though I did not attempt it in my playthrough, I should also make mention of the fact that this game is infamous for having one of the most difficult optional boss fights in the history of JRPGs. It exists for players who, unlike me, exist solely to keep challenging themselves with more and more brutal obstacles. For this reason, I can recommend the game to any JRPG fan. Those who like it easy will just need to be aware of a need to grind (though I finished the main story in only 35 hours), but players looking for a challenge will be well served by the optional content scattered throughout the game.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Texture Pop: Episode 8: This Is Not a Destiny Podcast

I don't know exactly how it happened... but it happened. We brought up Destiny as a one-off joke in the intro, and we somehow spent almost a significant chunk of the podcast talking about it. The best part is that none of us own the game, so we have no reason to really give out our opinion on it. Garrett and I played the beta, but that's it (though I hear not much has changed between then and the main release).

And that really hampered the rest of the cast, because it left us much less time to really talk about what we wanted to talk about. Although we continuous fail to do so, we really are trying to shorten up these podcasts. It's just that one conversation leads to another, which leads to another. By the time we realize it, we've spent 20 minutes discussing cupcakes and no one has any idea why that is.
It's both the shows greatest strength and weakness.

Having said that, here's the show.

The MP3 of this episode can be found here.

0:00:00 Introduction
Sam, I just want you to know that THIS IS ALL YOUR FAULT!

0:03:34 Viewer Question
"Have you guys ever played the original Unreal or Unreal 2? If so, what did you think of them?"
My youth betrays me when these types of questions come up. Not only are these games before my time more often than not, but even if they were from my time, I haven't been using my PC for gaming for very long. I've only had a computer capable of playing smaller games fairly well for a few years now, so I missed out/am missing out on many good PC games. In many ways, I'm still playing catch-up. Part of me hopes that when I graduate college, I'll be able to upgrade to a really good gaming PC and get much deeper into it. Until then, I have other things I need to use my money for.

0:08:50 Chris has a question about manga.
While I myself don't read a lot of manga, I have many friends who do. Sam is very right, MangaFox is the place to go for manga. Though I am less familiar with it, Sam also recommended All Mangas Reader to check out.
As a child, I used to read many of the popular Shonen Jump manga, but not many of the less known ones. Growing up, money became more tight, and when it came time to start cancelling subscriptions, Shonen Jump was one of the first to go. When my friends introduced me to MangaFox much later, I was already too far behind and didn't want to spend all that time playing catch up.
I only really gave up on manga because I used to be really into Naruto, but a particular moment in the series pretty much destroyed any interest I had in it. After Pain killed so many characters, and then almost immediately brought them back to life, I stopped caring. It showed me that death is completely meaningless. Once that happens, it becomes much harder to invest yourself in the events that go on, since you know they is a good chance they will be made meaningless.
Is it unfair to judge all mange/anime because on one? Yes. Will that stop me from doing precisely that? No.
Having said that, that isn't just a problem you see in manga/anime. ANY series that goes on for too long with suffer from that. That's probably why my favorite animes (Code Geass and Death Note, for the record) only had two seasons and ended before they had a chance to turn into crap. Sam has recommended a lot of anime to me, and I probably should watch a few of them sometime.

0:21:26 I joke about Destiny... and come to regret it.
I'm sorry listeners. I truly am.
I still can't fathom why they wouldn't put the database containing all the game's story in the actual game, even as just a text file. It boggles the mind. The database exists in RPGs for precisely that reason. Some people don't care about story, but the ones that do can look up any extra details they might be curious about.
This game was clearly over-hyped, even worse than Watch_Dogs was. It's not what I would call a bad game, but it is totally outclassed by many of its contemporaries. Honestly, if Destiny interests you, you are simply better off playing Borderlands 2.
In the premier episode of this podcast, I made a joke that Destiny was about "fighting the darkness with my keyblade," but it is worse than that. Shit all you want about Kingdom Hearts, but it has characters than make an impact, with their own personalities and motivations. Furthermore, light and darkness are very strongly defined concepts. Destiny lacks both of these.
I just cannot see the appeal of it. It doesn't even seem all that ambitious to me. In fact, the game looks very safe.

0:41:05 Chris talks a bit more about Serious Sam (and we stop talking about Destiny)
Hearing Chris talk about Serious Sam 3 on the 360 really, really sucks. That should NEVER happen on a console. There really isn't an excuse for that. If the devs didn't have time to port it to the console properly, they shouldn't release it on that console.
Even on the PC, some of the things Chris is talking about are simply inexcusable. I get the distinct impression that the developers were probably pressed in terms of either time or money, possibly both. Most developers don't release games in a state like that unless they have to, because they take pride in their work. What a shame.

0:48:45 Chris talks about Fist of the North Star and Dynesty Warriors-esque games.
Not much for me too add here, unfortunately. It's Dynesty Warriors, you either know about it or you don't.

0:51:30 The conversation transitions into Gundam, then Zoids.
It has been so long since I watched the Gundam anime that most of the finer details elude me. All I remember is some anime dude putting on a rubber suit, stepping into a cockpit, and then air boxing the shit out of other robots.
For some reason, I have significantly stronger memories of Zoids. Though many names elude me, the characters, faces, and overall storylines are still in my mind. This is probably because I kept up with the series with greater frequency as a child.

I should apologize for my belligerence during this segment. There were two main reasons for that. One of them is something you might have noticed from the recording. I was sick, and my voiced might have given that away.
The other reason is that I has to be up super early for work, so I didn't want the recording to go on for too long.

1:00:55 I am getting sick of Project X Zone.
It was a very interesting game at first. However, the game doesn't really add a lot in terms of variety as it goes on.
Oh sure, the initial objective might vary from mission to mission. However, once that is complete, the game will ALWAYS make you kill everything afterward. At the start, the game is content with making you simply kill a boss to end a mission. However, that stops really early on.
As a result, one single chapter (in other words, one battle) can take over an hour to win, sometimes more than 2 hours. And the game has 48 chapters. The game does have a quicksave, but since I only play for 20 minutes at a time (the length of my commute to either work or school), I don't feel like I'm making progress.
It's boring, it's slow, and it's annoying.

1:05:33 I play more Digital Devil Saga
On the other hand, this game has been getting more and more interesting as I play. It's like most SMT games in that it is much more important to get the right skills than to level up. With the right setup, a low level party can easily topple a high level boss by striking weaknesses to get extra turns and using their own skills to absorb enemy attacks.
As for the story, it's good, but even in this space here, I would not be able to explain it. I know it's weird to ask you to trust me on that, but I'm asking you to trust me on that.

1:12:05 I tell the cast that I've been sick.
Y'know. I just assumed everyone used Petroleum Jelly to heal dry skin on their nose when they got sick. I was surprised that Sam was surprised.
Tissues, Petroleum Jelly, and Cold Medicine... I try to make sure I have all three readily available when I am sick.

1:18:35 Garrett played Half-Life 2 and League of Legends: Ascension .
I wish I knew a bit more about League, because I'm always at a loss with regards to what to put down here whenever Garrett talks about that game. I'm not a huge MOBA guy, so I don't get into them. I'm the kind of gamer who needs a sense that I advancing towards some goal, typically the advancement of a story, in order to keep playing. In multiplayer games, I don't typically get that, so I don't play them too often except to hang out with friends.

1:28:18 Garrett purchased FaceRig and Among the Sleep.
FaceRig is technically more of a software than a game, but it still sounds really cool. Basically, it's a program that maps your facial movements onto a 3D character, though a low-res webcam. It's still in testing, but the developers are apparently comfortable enough to put it out to the general public.
This brings us to the general topic of Steam Early Access. Like Greenlight before it, Early Access has a lot of problems associated with it. I still don't know if I support or renounce the concept, as there are very strong cases for its inclusion and its removal from Steam.

1:31:55 I ask the cast if they prefer the close-garden or open approach to Steam.
I ask this mostly out of curiosity. Again, I haven't fully formed my opinion on the matter. I think there is some nuance to the issue.
In either case, some quality-control should be taking place. I think that much is clear.

1:37:40 Garrett talks about his Game Design class.
It is interesting how many parallels there are between the classes Garrett goes through and what I go through. I am going for a general Bachelor's of Science in Computer Science, with a concentration in Game Design. Garrett is going through a specialized Game Design class.
In terms of programming, you can teach a lot by just asking students to program video games. All sorts of skills are necessary for even the simplest games. As you advance to higher level courses, this becomes less true, but it is still interesting to take note of.
Having said that, the pitches Garrett talks about from his class all seem really bad, just on a fundamental level.

1:47:20 Sam has been playing Diablo 3.
And he is super-bored by it. Then again, his character sounds super OP. Not much more to say about it.

1:53:00 Sam finished the new Strider game.
Not much to say about that.

1:55:45 Sam got to play the Dark Souls 2 DLC
And it's somehow difficult even by Dark Souls standards, which I thought was impossible.

1:58:50 Sam watches non-David Cage movies.
And they sound interesting enough for me to want to check out at some point.
Though at this point, I actually had to drop out of the podcast because I really needed to wake up early the next day.

2:12:25 Sam finished Muramasa: Rebirth.
And I am a bit sad I missed out on that. I mean, it would be me gushing about the game, but I would have loved to talk about it.

2:13:30 The guys wrap up the cast without me.
At least the guys are aware of how ungodly long this particular session seemed to run too. I wonder how much more bearable it would have been if I wasn't literally sick and tired. They aren't wrong about us being able to talk forever. These types of discussions, even outside the cast, are fairly normal for us. That's just how we roll, I suppose.
As for shout-outs, I wrote an article on RPG Combat I forgot that I wanted to talk about during the cast. I'll make sure to bring it up next week.

Friday, September 12, 2014

#75: Are RPGs Even Allowed to Have "Good" Combat?

As I said in last week's post, my free time has been spent playing old PlayStation 2 ATLUS RPGs. Having beaten Devil Summoner, I have been making progress through Digital Devil Saga. However, this is not an Impressions piece on that game as it will take some time to finish, now that college classes are taking up my time again. Worry not, my friends, because playing through this game has given me an interesting idea for a subject of an article. One idea has been clawing at the back of my mind for some time now. This idea is as follows: “Are RPGs even allowed to have 'good' combat?”

This might at first seem like a weird question, but hear me out. Though this is not always the case, most gamers, on some level, associate RPGs with longer playtimes than would typically expected of other games. These lengths usually exceed 30 hours, and it is not uncommon for them to go up to 50 hours or greater. In order to facilitate player engagement for the entire length of one of these games, combat has to fill a very particular niche. Should the fighting be too busy, then players will become fatigued from having to repeatedly consume mental stamina to stay on top. This will result in them either taking long breaks between sessions, or being incapable of playing for more than an hour or so at a time before they need to call it quits.
Kingdoms of Amalur served as a decent example of that. At a minimum, a typical playthrough will take about 50 hours to clear. In order to keep the player's attention throughout this length, the development team went out of their way to try to make the best combat they could. In order to have good fighting in the game, they made players have to watch all of their enemies in order to know when to dodge attacks and counter with their own. It requires observation of the enemy, their patterns, and the properties of their attacks. Further, a sense of timing and, to a lesser extent, rhythm is needed to capitalize on openings and avoid making them yourself. There is quite a lot going on, even in beginning fights. While the game does have a leveling mechanic, so fighting against enemies of lower/higher level will make it easier/harder, the game does a fairly good job of keeping the player at just the right level to get a decent challenge going throughout the experience.
Unfortunately, this style of combat has drawbacks that can only be seen when placed in an RPG and extended for long lengths of time. First, the player's attack properties are always in flux. Different weapon types possess different attack animations, so equipping a new weapon can completely throw off the sense of timing and result in unnecessary grief in a fight. Even when the same type of weapon is equipped, each one has their own properties. This results in dealing different damage and having different ranges. It might not sound like much, but that can have a dramatic impact on overall strategy. While some of this is necessary in order to keep scenarios new and interesting, the nature of the game makes this so regular that players rarely have time to get used to old tactics before new ones are needed. Other issues crop up as well. For example, the mental strain required to keep all of these factors in mind is draining. It results in a feeling of general exhaustion when playing the game. Such feeling are exacerbated when the typical RPG trappings of inventory management and character development are included. The constant need to fiddle with equipment and build setups, while partaking in very active engagements, can reduce even the strongest willpower to nothing.

On the other hand, RPGs cannot make the combat too boring. This opposite problem is what many people who shy away from RPGs typically associate with them. If the game does not make its combat engaging enough, players will still not play it for very long, for surprisingly similar reasons. A boring, monotonous slog can often be exactly as draining as overengagement. As a result, a game that does not bring a proper level of engagement to the forefront will tire out users and get them to stop playing.
Final Fantasy XII had this problem in spades. The combat system, seemingly inspired by MMOs, took place in real-time, with attacks taking a period of time to perform depending on the user's speed stat. The game also had a system called Gambits. Basically, the game allowed players to control the player AI's algorithm, as determined by a series of if-then statements. As a result of this system, most of the game was automated. Tasks like healing, buffing/debuffing, and exploiting enemy weaknesses could simply by handed off to the AI. Theoretically, this could be free the player up to focus more on task at hand, dealing with fighting on the macro level as opposed to the micro level. In execution, most fights could be completed without a single input of the part of the player. All the player really had to do was make sure the party was moving throughout the dungeon, completing the puzzles and getting to the next cutscene. As a result, it gets boring quickly, and finishing the game can be considered a bit of a chore.

In order to keep players interested throughout the length of the game, the combat needs to be just challenging enough so that it draws and holds the player's attention without taxing them too heavily. Heading too far in either direction will just tire the player out, either through exhaustion or boredom. While the player needs to be “going through the motions” to a degree, some variety must come from somewhere in order to keep interest, while still maintaining a structure to the combat. This is ultimately where the crux of my argument comes from. Can this balance really be seen as “good” combat? Is it “fun” in the traditional sense? Or is it merely good enough to hold a typical player's attention throughout the course of the game, without honestly being that entertaining in its own right?

I do not honestly have that answer. As much as I mulled over this point and even after playing countless games in the genre, I cannot reach a satisfactory conclusion. Thus, I would like to hear your input on the matter. Should any of you have an opinion on this subject that you wish to share, please feel free to contact me, either in the comments below or on social media. I look forward to hearing from all of you.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Texture Pop: Episode 7: SPACE DRAGONS BRO!

The Texture Pop returns for another week of craziness. Everyone showed up for the recording session, so the cast was back to its usual shenanigans, albeit a more muted variety of it.

You see, most of us were completely exhausted when we started recording, and that only got worse as the show went on. Sam was getting a lot of hours at work, Garrett had some issues he was dealing with, and I was doing off-site training for work (at a location an hour away from my house) and had only just gotten home a few hours prior to recording.
And Chris, Chris can stuff it with his energy.

The MP3 version of this podcast can be found here:

0:00:00 Introduction
Just an FYI, I get weird when I'm tired, which can explain some of the behavior at the start of the cast.

0:02:20 Viewer Questions
"Do you guys have any favorite gaming-related media?"
I mention the Mass Effect novels in this segment. Though I stand behind the first three novel, I reject any notion that final novel is good.
The document referring to all the plot holes in it is here. (It's only 16 pages.)
And here's a link to (screw) Kai Leng: Cereal Killer.

Garrett reminds me of .hack, which makes me bring up just how much I love .hack. Through the games are fairly mediocre, the lore and story is fantastic. Its premise is fairly unique among video game plots, and it had a very distinct feel to it. I could've sworn that he brought up the subject, but listening to this recording makes it clear than I did.

"Do you guys have any franchises that you would like to be turned into a game, and what would you want that game to be like?"
All the properties that I really love have one of three problems associated with them, in regards to this question.

  • The franchise started as a game, or already has games for it.
  • The franchise does not feel like it would work as a game, in an interactive space.
  • I would never trust a developer to accurately capture the spirit of the franchise in a video game for.
It's an interesting thought question though, and I'd be interested in any responses from you guys to this question.

0:36:25 Sam bought Grid: Auto Sport
Because Dirt 3 uses Games For Windows Live.
...No one likes GWFL. At least that service is on the way out.

And we talk about that and other racing games, so I start to clock out. I distinctly recall it being really difficult to keep my eyes open during this segment. (I was really tired.)

0:41:25 Sam picked up the new Strider game.
I don't have much of a frame of reference for the Strider franchise, so I honestly cannot elaborate much upon what Sam and Chris were talking about.
What they do start talking about, that might be of interest, is the necessity to upgrade PC hardware to keep up with current games. This is honestly probably one of the biggest reasons I stick to consoles. My funds, especially as a college student, are extremely limited, so I try to spend them wisely.

0:47:11 Sam is still not playing the Dark Souls DLC and touched Murdered: Soul Suspect
I think the behavior Sam exhibits while trying to get to the DLC is completely understandable. I remember, after about the 30-35 hour mark in Dragon Age: Origins, where I was just getting so sick of the game and just wanted to be done with it and move on to something else. It's not the exact same, but it's comparable.
As for Murdered: Soul Suspect, I have an impressions piece on it if you are interested.
We also briefly discuss Early Access in this segment.

0:53:30 Garrett played a bit of Watch_Dogs
I do find it really interesting that myself, Chris "Campster" Franklin of Errant Signal, and Patrick Klepek of Giant Bomb all found Aiden Pearce to be irredeemable. None of us had any knowledge of the other's thoughts, but we all agree.
Aside from that, Watch_Dogs is okay, but super overhyped. It's not honestly fairly bad overall, though it has some qualities which can be refined into a truly great game.

0:59:45 Garrett got free movies from his library.
Include Citizen Kane, which is the Citizen Kane of movies.

1:01:05 Garrett played Borderlands 2 and League of Legends
I don't like Borderlands 2 much because it's one of those games where you need other people to have a good time. Playing by yourself is just incredibly boring.
As for League of Legends, those MOBA communities sound really, really shitty. It's really sad to see. People take their entertainment WAY too seriously.

We do get into a conversation regarding LoL's story. While I don't know anything about it, what I've heard makes it sound really bad.

1:15:35 I finish Devil Summoner 2.
And I wrote an impressions piece on it.
I really do not understand why designers make dungeons and levels as long as they do. I cannot stand long dungeon crawls. TEN HOURS for one dungeon is OVERKILL. I get angry after an hour.
Aside from that though, the game is a very good Shin Megami Tensei game. I'd easily recommend it to anyone who likes JRPGs and is interested in getting into SMT.

1:21:25 I am playing Digital Devil Saga.
Even among SMT games, this game is incredibly unique, mostly because you never gain any new demons. Instead, you develop your character's demonic powers as they progress through the game.
It's a very bizarre game, and I look forward to finishing it.

As for silent protagonists, I tend to like them in games. They serve a very important role, especially in SMT games, because they typically serve as player-avatars more than characters in their own right. Of course, ultimately it depends on the game for if its a good idea.

1:28:30 Chris bought the Serious Sam Collection
Serious Sam is a franchise I really need to take the time to playthough at some point. Everything I hear about it indicates that it would be right up my alley. Unfortunately, it's another one of those franchises that I don't know enough about it to make any additional commentaries.
I was also completely unaware that Serious Sam had an RPG. Calling in "The Random Encounter" is quite clever, so props to the developers for that.

1:43:30 Chris talks about Mortal Kombat X and DLC
And yet another series I don't know much about. This has been a fairly light annotations because I don't know a lot about many of these topics.
However, I do love how Chris remarks about how game developers have trained us to just wait until all the DLC is out, and then get it in a single go with the "Ultimate Edition". I sometimes wonder how that behavior affects the sales of games with DLC.

1:48:30 Chris and Sam talk about DOA5 and Virtua Fighter
And I was honestly beginning to fall asleep during the recording. Took all of my willpower to stay awake.

1:55:00 We start talking movies until the end of the episode.
And Micheal Bay is still bad.

2:02:20 Conclusion
I was so tired that I FORCED this to end.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Impressions #13: Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner 2: Raidou Kuzunoha Vs. King Abaddon

As many of the people who know me are aware, I am what one might consider to be an “ATLUS-faithful”. ATLUS is one of my favorite developers because of how they shamelessly stick to the things that make old-school JRPGs charming, while reinventing the other aspects as they see fit. I make no secret of the fact that Persona 4 is in close competition as one of my all-time favorite games (following behind Dark Cloud 2 and Wild Arms 3). Having said that, there are still many Shin Megami Tensei games that I have never played before. As a result, I have been trying to “catch up” on the games that I missed. This process is started by the game I will be talking about in this post: Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner 2: Raidou Kuzunoha Vs. King Abaddon (RK2). This is the direct sequel to Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha Vs. The Soulless Army, a game I played a long time ago, back when it was released on the PS2. The game, and its predecessor, are unique for not only how they continue on the traditions of the SMT franchise, but also in how they defy other such traditions.

One of the biggest differences between RK2 and other SMT games is the difference in the overall tone. Shin Megami Tensei games tend to have very dark outlooks of the world and the themes they use. Devil Summoner is different in this regard. Instead of conforming to the bleakness of the franchise, the overall tone falls more into the realm of camp. It feels more at home being compared to an anime from the 70s than it does an SMT story. The premise of the game alone, being that a shadowy group of hillbilly ninjas is threatening the Capital of Japan by using specialized insects to steal people's luck and the player acts as a demon summoner/detective who is on the case, is a prime example of this. The game is fully aware of how absurd it is, and reveals in that absurdity.
The setting bolsters this uniqueness, taking place in 1930s-Japan. Very few games actually use this era in Japanese history as their backdrop, which makes Devil Summoner 2 even more interesting. Most SMT games take place in either the modern world or in a post-apocalyptic near-future, and most JRPGs take place in a classic fantasy. With this period, RK2 provides an interesting glimpse into Japanese history, when looking at how people interact with each other and the world around them. Not to say that it is completely historically accurate, as I sincerely doubt 1930s-Japan was plagued by demons and evil insects that steal luck. However, the fact that it takes advantage of an underused setting gives the Raidou Kuzunoha sub-franchise a look and feel all its own.
Another difference between RK2 and most other SMT games is the combat. Where most Shin Megami Tensei games are turn-based in their combat, Devil Summoner 2, like its predecessor, takes place in real time. Bringing two demons in battle, the protagonist comes equipped with a sword and gun. He can command his demons to use their skills, which consume his magical energies. If their attacks exploit a weakness, the enemy will be stunned. Further attacks on a foe in a stunned state will result in them releasing magical energy. In other words, if the player keeps exploiting weaknesses, they can use skills almost infinitely. The player can also guard attacks to reduce damage and hide demons from attacks to keep them alive. It is fairly intuitive system that never gets particularly difficult. As a consequence, there is no challenge to it. Once the player is aware of a enemies weakness, it is simply a matter of using the correct moves and then mashing the attack button. While it works, it is only interesting enough to keep players progressing through the story, which is the clear highlight.

Having said all of that, the game is still a Shin Megami Tensei game at its core. As is typical of games bearing that distinction, enlisting and summon mythical creatures from various religions and mythologies (SMT throws them all under the blanket term “demons”) to aid the protagonist. During a random encounter, players can choose to halt the battle in order to talk to the demons that they are fighting against. If the conversation goes well, they can begin negotiations with their enemy. When the player acquiesces to the demands set forth by the other party, they will join up with the protagonist and become part of the player party. New demons can also be acquired by fusing other demons in their employ. Should they register their creatures before they either fuse or dismiss them from service, then they can even pay to have them added back into the roster, with the stats they possessed at the time of registration.
These demons also serve as they way players progress through the game. Of course, their primary purpose is to help form the player's fighting party. Every demon has their own strengths and weaknesses. It is up to the player to switch in/out the ones which are best suited to the current situation. For example, a demon who excels at fire magic will generally be strong against demons with wings, but not against those with ice magic. However, this is not their only purpose mid-battle. Should the player choose to begin conversation and negotiation, their demons can help assist in the conversation. Each one has their own conversational skill, and those skills have different effects on different demons. Lastly, they are also used during exploration, as their abilities can either destroy certain obstacles in the field or get to locations the protagonist is unable to go to themselves. When playing the game, the player needs to consider all three avenues of usefulness when constructing their party. In some cases, it might be a good idea to keep a very low-level demon because they possess abilities, either in negotiations or in the field, which make them useful. The system is very interesting and requires a lot of thought from the player.

Although the monsters are clearly the star of the show most of the time, the protagonist is no less important. In classic SMT fashion, the player character is a bit of a blank slate, with a set backstory to help facilitate immersion in the story. The character in question is a high school student (although that fact rarely ever comes up) who has been training his whole life to live as a Devil Summoner. Though the player gives him a true name, he has attained the rank and title of Great Summoner Raidou Kuzunoha the XIVth, tasked with protecting the Capital from demonic and supernatural threats. As a cover, he works part-time at a detective agency, to give him a plausible reason to conduct his investigations into these threats.
What makes him a particularly intriging protagonist, and fairly in line with what players expect from a Shin Megami Tensei game, is that while his actions in the game plot do not change, the player is ultimately who decides what his motivations are. Throughout the game, players make dialog choices for the lead character. As these decisions are made, the game adjusts the protagonists alignment on a scale of Law and Chaos. No matter what, he is a good person trying to help the people. The real choice is between why he does it. Does he do what he does simply because he has accepted the responsibility of being Raidou Kuzunoha and all that title entails? Or is he simply using the mantel as a means to protect the people because that is what his true desire are, ready to abandon the role if it no longer suited that purpose? Or does the answer lie somewhere in the middle? The game does not judge either side of Law or Chaos particularly harshly, and shows the positives and negatives of both types of virtuousness. The characters who represent Law and Chaos in the narrative are readily aware of the advantages of the other side and the flaws they possess. It never feels heavy handed and is actually quite maturely handled.

Overall, while Devil Summoner 2 has flaws, it is a unique and interesting enough game that it feels like a breath of fresh air. I enjoyed it for most of my playthrough, only getting annoyed at the length of the final dungeon. For the price you get it on the PlayStation Network now, I would say it is easily worth the investment. Though it is different from standard SMT games in many ways, it used the more familiar elements to make franchise fans feel just as at home as they would be in other games. Newcomers to the franchise are best served by playing either this, its predecessor, or Persona 3/4 because they are by far more friendly to new players than other games in the franchise are. After that, they might want to consider jumping off into the more difficult ATLUS games.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Texture Pop: Episode 6: Now With 20% More Buttons

No guest this week, so it's back to our usual insanity with The Texture Pop. Unfortunately, Garrett could not make it to the recording for personal reasons. Fortunately, the rest of us are completely insane.

Also, the reason we get no viewer questions is because last week's cast was so late in coming out. Hopefully, that will change next week.

The MP3 version of this episode can be found here.

0:00:00 Introductions
I feel the need to explain what the hell happened to the beginning of this episode. We spent 20 minutes before the start of this podcast doing something that WASN'T recording the podcast because Samuel decided to try to find a game to play during the cast. As he'll reveal later, it was an entirely pointless exercise because his chosen game crashed.
I also say Garrett hasn't arrived "yet" because he explained why he couldn't attend shortly after the podcast began. He'll be back, so don't worry too much.

0:01:32 We Talk About the New Nintendo 3DS (And Its Stupidity)
At the time of recording, the New Nintendo 3DS story was only a day old, so it was fresh in out minds. There are unfortunately just too many reasons why this is a bad idea for me to support it.
  • The 3DS is still relatively new in the portable console space.
  • Since games will be exclusive to it, it is dividing the install base of the 3DS needlessly, in the same way map packs divide the player base of the First Person Shooter.
  • The new stick does not look very comfortable, and some of the new extra buttons are questionably placed.
  • The name is incredibly confusing, as it is a new console and not a updated 3DS (which revives the problem the Wii and Wii U had).
This just isn't something that should work. And I'm not going to lie, this makes me REALLY sore I bought a 3DS only a few weeks ago.

0:19:30 Chris plays Counter-Spy
Chris description of the game catches my interest in a big way. The premise of the trying to stop two large nations from nuking each other sounds really interesting. Combined with the tone and aesthetic, and Counter-Spy sounds like a game that would be theoretically up my alley.

Further, the fact that detection is a gradient rather than a binary is a great idea. As someone who plays a ton of stealth games, that's something that many such titles lack. The only downside is that the game does not sound like something that one could do well at while ghosting.
Modular level design is also another clever way to keep repeat playthroughs fresh. Overall, it sounds cool and I might try it out when I've eaten through my backlog a bit.

0:39:23 Chris relapses into his Marvel Heroes addiction.
True story, Chris has tried to talk me into playing Marvel Heroes with him every once in a while (not too hard, mind you). I sometimes feel weird declining because I do get the feeling that I might enjoy that game. Having said that, Marvel Puzzle Quest really destroyed my desire to play Marvel-based F2P games.
I know that's totally unfair to Marvel Heroes, but that's how I feel. I remember liking Marvel Puzzle Quest a lot when I first played it. Hell, there's a reason I have several hundreds of hours clocked on it both on Steam and my phone. However, they kept adding and changing element after element and the direction they went was not one I was okay with supporting. My fear is that if I join Marvel Heroes, that game will face the same fate. I just cannot do that to myself again.
Maybe one day, I'll write about my experience with that game and why I quit, but not today.
One the subject of Marvel Heroes, based on what Chris said, it is a lot less P2W than Marvel Puzzle Quest was, and the microtransactions sound a lot more fair to consumers. My inner researcher would be interested in comparing the profits of Marvel Heroes with Marvel Puzzle Quest, to see which model is more financially successful. My gut says that despite Marvel Heroes seemingly treating players more fairly, Marvel Puzzle Quest is the biggest cash-cow.

0:47:30 I played Project X Zone
And have nothing more to say about it.

0:48:10: I finished the Walking Dead: Season 2.
Overall, this season wasn't all that great. It's kind of like the Transistor to Season 1's Bastion. It's good on its own merits, but if you compare the two, it is simply inferior.
Having said that, the finale was easily the best part of the game. One thing I would like Telltale to try to do to actually let choices you make have an effect on the plot. The "choices feel impactful, but aren't" doesn't work anymore because players are starting to catch on. Further, having no real "gameplay" kinda hurts the pacing because without those sections, there is no downtime to let players digest what they've seen in the game. The last few sections go a long way with that, but it still could use some refinement.

0:51:55 I played more Devil Summoner 2.
And I have to admit that I am getting a little sick of how long JRPGs take. I've talked about game length several times before, but RPGs are the worst at this crap. It's like they have no concept of making a dungeon a decent length.
I think most of it comes down to their D&D inspired roots. In a D&D game, having a long dungeon crawl is acceptable because it's easy and you have the chemistry of all the players to work off of. Essentially, the game is a framework to create your own enjoyment with your friends.
In a single player RPG, that is no longer the case. The game is a framework for the story being made in collaboration between the designer and the player. As a result, you cannot feed off the energy born from friends in the same room. In this scenario, a dungeon slog is much less acceptable, and I wish that more designers could understand that.

0:52:55 I played an indie game called Hand of Fate.
Like I said in the cast, I find this game to be very fascinating. I just wish in ran well on my computer. The concept is cool and I think that, with some refinement, it could become a very interesting game. If and when it eventually comes to the Vita, it would be a perfect game for that device.
I also mentioned this comic from Grey Carter and Cory Rydell on The Escapist.
Also, to be fair, this is a $600 laptop that is over 3 years old. I have no business playing games on it. Somehow, it's worked like a champion for so long. If it can just last one more year, I'd be happy.
Unfortunately for my laptop, a new mattress and a PS4 come first.

1:00:00 I went back to college (and so did Chris)
I am just going to repeat what I said in the cast. If you can avoid it, NEVER go to the campus store to buy textbooks. You are pissing money away by doing that.
And fuck loose-leaf textbooks too. That's a scam if I ever saw one.

1:05:39 Sam worked a lot.
And Chris takes the time to tell us exactly what he thinks of several former employers of his. XD

1:10:45 Since Sam works at a pizza place, we start talking about pizza (and health?).
We've said before that we were inspired by the GiantBomb-cast to do this show. There is no truer way to demonstrate that inspiration that with the conversation that occurred at this time stamp.
Also, you have never tasted pizza before until you've dabbed the grease out of it. It's just so much better that way, both in health and in taste.
Cutting soda is also a really good way to improve your health. Even if you just switch it with fruit juice, it's much better.
Diets are such a hard thing to correct. Part of it is that the worst food for you is cheap, so for a struggling family it can be the only option. Further, someone who grows up on that food (like myself) doesn't really acquire a taste for the higher quality foods, which means we stick to the unhealthy shit.
Also, I misspoke here. When I said "the world is not designed for us to be skinny", what I mean to say was "stereotypically healthy." *sigh* Don't you love body-image issues?

1:22:00 We talk about Sony Smash Br.. I mean Playstation All-Stars: Battle Royale.
It has bad net-coding, which makes us talk about Internets and connections.
And Chris talked about troubleshooting, which made us talk about Google.
Which made us talk about Bing
Which made us talk about paid-sponsors in movies/TV?
Which made us talk about Ad Block
Which made us talk about YouTube
Which made us talk about Amazon buying Twitch
And this is how a typical conversation goes for us. I'M SORRY!

1:37:00 Conclusion
This was a podcast.